There are an estimated 3.4 million people in the UK living with lung conditions asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) that are made worse by toxic air. Days of high air pollution can bring about terrifying bouts of breathlessness, coughing, wheezing and other symptoms, which can be fatal.

Air pollution doesn’t just affect people already living with lung diseases – it affects us all. One baby is born every two minutes in the UK into areas of high air pollution, potentially setting them up for a lifetime of poor health. Dirty air can stunt lung growth in children, create new lung conditions and, ultimately, it’s responsible for an estimated 36,000 premature deaths a year in the UK. It’s a public health emergency.

Given the scale and severity of the threat posed by toxic air, the government’s air pollution alert system should be an integral part of helping people to plan their days when air pollution is high in order to reduce their exposure to harmful pollutants. The Daily Air Quality Index (DAQI) forecasts air pollution levels across the country, and issues alerts when air pollution levels reach a certain threshold, warning people there’s a significant danger to public health and advising them to modify their behaviour if necessary. The alert advises those who are at greatest risk, including people with lung and heart problems, to reduce their levels of physical exertion, particularly outdoors.

The effectiveness of the alert system is seriously limited because most people don’t know it exists. Our survey of people with lung conditions found about two thirds (62%) of them were unaware of the DAQI. There’s very limited access to accurate data for the general public at the local level, and no disease-specific guidance from government on how people can best protect themselves against the health effects of dirty air. The alerts provide blanket ‘reduce physical exertion outdoors’ message – it’s not particularly helpful or realistic – what if someone has to run to catch their train to work? Also, for people with lung conditions, exercise is a crucial to staying well and managing their lung condition.

There’s also a question mark over the thresholds at which the DAQI categorises air pollution levels as ‘low’, ‘medium’ or ‘high’. New research comes to light regularly about the dangers air pollution poses to our health, and last year the World Health Organization radically reduced the limit values under its Air Quality Guidelines to reflect the fact that there is no safe level of air pollution to breathe in. This means that the DAQI’s thresholds are becoming increasingly out of date and should really be amended to reflect our increasing understanding of how seriously air pollution can affect health. The government also needs to develop an alert for fine particulate matter pollution, as this is the most dangerous pollutant to human health.

People with lung conditions tell us that they often feel the effects of air pollution, even on days when there is no alert. The alerts should be the canaries in the coalmine, not people with lung conditions.

At Asthma + Lung UK we’re campaigning for the government to be bolder in its approach to tackling air pollution. But what we’re currently not seeing in the alert system is enough information warning about the health effects of air pollution nor messaging that puts the responsibility on polluters to reduce their contribution to the country’s lethal air. The alerts are basically a sticking plaster, telling those at greatest risk that they must change their behaviour and reduce their exposure, rather than issuing useful advice and information that will help address and change behaviours aimed at tackling the root causes of the problem.

The effects of air pollution are monumental. We need to take action to protect all our health both now and in the future. That includes setting more ambitious targets on the pollutants that pose the greatest health risks, that see us comply with World Health Organization interim guidelines by 2030 at the latest. But it also means developing a more sophisticated alert system to help people most at risk to better manage their activities during high pollution episodes, and make the wider public more aware of the dangers posed by dirty air.

Come and talk to me in Parliament…

Parliament holds the key to improving the air we breathe and raising awareness of the dangers of air pollution. For a week from 18 July, Asthma + Lung UK will be hosting a stand in the Upper Waiting Hall in Westminster to discuss toxic air, its effects on health and the need to improve the availability of public health information and monitoring across the country. Please stop by and chat to me and the rest of the charity’s clean air experts about how we can work together to improve air pollution in every community across the country, including working with trusted sources like charities and healthcare professionals to promote the alert system and keep everyone safe.

For further information or to make an appointment to meet in person email: policy@asthmaandlung.org.uk